5 Tips for Preventing Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal, the space through which the spinal cord and/or spinal nerve roots pass. If the bony spinal canal becomes too narrow, the very sensitive nerves or nerve roots within it become compressed, causing pain and a variety of other symptoms.

Spinal stenosis can develop in the neck (cervical stenosis), and cause weakness, numbness, and pain in the arms and legs. Stenosis usually affects the lower back (lumbar spinal stenosis), where its effects are felt in one or both legs, especially during walking and sitting.

Arthritis and degenerative spinal changes are often the cause. This is something most of us will develop, especially once we reach our 50's.

Can we prevent spinal stenosis? The answer is technically no. Everyone gets it--at least to some degree. However, there are ways to reduce your risk.

Here you can learn how spinal stenosis develops, and five things you can do to help prevent it or slow its progress.

Older woman with exercise ball
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Why Spinal Stenosis Occurs

Spinal stenosis usually results from "wear-and-tear" arthritis, such as osteoarthritis and degenerative changes in the spine, or from trauma or injury.

Over time, the protective cartilage that covers the bones of the back wears out and the bones can rub together. The body responds by forming new bony growths (called bone spurs) to try to support the area. These spurs can press on nerves and cause pain.

Spinal stenosis can also occur when the round, shock-absorbing disks that lie between each of the bones in the spine (the vertebrae) begin to degenerate over time or bulge or herniate. Spinal ligaments that keep the vertebrae in place are also susceptible to arthritis and can swell over time, leading to a smaller spinal canal. Spinal cord cysts or tumors can also narrow the spinal canal and cause spinal stenosis.

Some people are born with a narrow spinal canal. This condition is called congenital spinal stenosis.

1

Keep Moving

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Regular exercise is one key to keeping your spine healthy. To make exercise part of your daily life, tailor your workout to best suit your own needs. Consider your age, any health concerns, and current fitness level. A carefully tailored plan may help you safely build your endurance, increase or maintain your spinal flexibility, and develop your back-supporting abdominal muscles.

A visit to your doctor or physical therapist is a good place to start, especially if you are having symptoms of spinal stenosis. Together, you can develop an effective exercise plan.

The goal is to keep moving. Find a regimen you enjoy...one that works for you at whatever level you can safely and comfortably sustain.

If you're not an exercise buff, you can start your regimen slowly and monitor your response to exercise in terms of pain, weakness, and nerve symptoms. It's best to stop if any of these develop during a workout, and try lighter exercise next time.

Walking is a great form of exercise, but if walking is difficult ​for you, try another form of aerobic exercise. Stationary cycling, swimming, and deep water exercises using flotation devices are excellent options.

2

Keep Stretching

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Stretching your spine is a great way to maintain or improve your range of motion and help keep you limber. And it may help prevent or slow progression of spinal stenosis and its accompanying pain and stiffness.

Relaxation exercises, water exercises, and holistic therapies may also help to improve flexibility and mobility and stave off the pain and other symptoms normally associated with spinal stenosis. Try these back release moves. Or see a physical therapist, who may suggest stretching exercises and other movement activities tailored for you that can help to relieve any early symptoms.

3

Maintain Good Posture

Woman sitting at a desk with computer
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Learning how to maintain good posture when you sit or go about your daily activities (like gardening, lifting heavy things, or reaching up high to get something) may help you avoid injury and wear and tear that could lead to spinal stenosis. Exercise and postural correction measures can help you learn to sit or stand with optimal posture.

4

Manage Your Weight

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Attaining and maintaining a healthy weight for your height may go a long way toward preventing spinal stenosis or relieving symptoms.

Carrying extra body weight puts pressure on all parts of the spine. It can also make it hard to exercise with good form. Exercising with good form helps to develop overall strength, flexibility, back support, and the ability to get through the day with minimal muscle fatigue.

5

Quit Smoking

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Smoking not only increases the risk of developing heart disease, respiratory infections, cancer, and other illnesses, but it is also linked with back pain. Inhaled smoke can restrict blood flow and oxygen that nourish your spine, causing degenerative changes and a heightened perception of pain.

Healthy Habits Can Help You Stay Limber

Lifestyle choices are key to maintaining flexibility and may help slow age-related degenerative changes in the spine. A healthy diet and exercise regimen, good posture, and optimal weight can go a long way toward helping you stay limber.  

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  2. Slater J, Kolber MJ, Schellhase KC, et al. The Influence of Exercise on Perceived Pain and Disability in Patients With Lumbar Spinal Stenosis: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016;10(2):136-147. doi:10.1177/1559827615571510

  3. Sheng B, Feng C, Zhang D, Spitler H, Shi L. Associations between Obesity and Spinal Diseases: A Medical Expenditure Panel Study Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(2). doi:10.3390/ijerph14020183

  4. Knutsson B, Mukka S, Wahlstrom J, et al. The association between tobacco smoking and surgical intervention for lumbar spinal stenosis: cohort study of 331,941 workers. Spine J. 2017;18(8):1313-1317. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.spinee.2017.11.018

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